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Strong words from Jeanette Winterson


Strong words from Jeanette Winterson

England's queer literary firebrand speaks out on politics, the backward march of civil rights, and the evil at the heart of her new novel, Lighthousekeeping

England's queer literary firebrand speaks out on politics, the backward march of civil rights, and the evil at the heart of her new novel, Lighthousekeeping

By Suzanne Stroh

Raised in poverty under the thumb of a fanatically religious foster mother, Jeanette Winterson left home at 16 and burst on the literary scene roughly a decade later with her acclaimed autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Follow-up novels like The Passion established Winterson as a European-style fabulist with an international fan base. After a period of same-sex high adventure that found its way, little disguised, into her novels of the time, Winterson hit a "dark period" of bad press and poor reviews but rebounded in 2003 with an ambitious new Web site and a popular children's book, The King of Capri. Now 45 and single, Winterson splits her time between the 18th-century house she restored in London's East End (with its natural foods market, Verde's, on the ground floor) and her 18-acre farm in Oxfordshire, where she grows her own food.

With her newly published eighth novel, Lighthousekeeping (Harcourt, $23.00), Winterson returns to her storytelling roots in religious fanaticism and fundamentalism. Her protagonist is Silver, a Scottish orphan who becomes apprentice to a blind man tending a lighthouse built by the Stevenson family. Listening to the man's gothic tales, Silver discovers the dark secrets of the former lighthousekeeper, the religious fanatic Babel Dark--who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Let's talk about the frightening man at the heart of your novel--the former lighthousekeeper named Babel Dark. Of his many unpleasant qualities, you write about him that he "had trained himself to think of absolutely nothing." Any comments relating to contemporary culture?
Babel Dark is the kind of religious obsessive who sees his own life torn apart because his beliefs are so inflexible. But in tearing his own life apart he manages to damage the lives of so many other people: the woman he loves, his wife, and the people around him in the village of Salts. The damage you do is never limited to yourself. So it's a very dangerous position to occupy, this place of fanaticism and rigid orthodoxy.

So what's the difference between meditating, emptying oneself of thought in order to rest or for enlightenment, and becoming empty? And how can you recognize that?
There's a difference between a willful emptiness which you force upon yourself because you do not dare to let in any stray thought and the kind of nirvana that spiritual leaders teach us to work towards, which is compassion. The person who is strong in himself never fears any influences from the outside because he or she knows that he or she can discriminate against them or counteract them or simply push them aside. That's the mark of a strong person. Somebody who can let it all in, who can walk in the world free and relaxed, let come what may, and not fear it.

You left home at 16. What would you say to a kid who has to leave home today at 16, whether by his or her own choice or because their parents found out they're gay and kicked them out?
I'd say, leave. I'd say, don't do drugs, don't do drink, don't end up on the streets, don't sell your body. It's going to be incredibly hard. But you can do it--and it's worth doing it, instead of staying in a place which will warp your imagination and sap your energy and twist your desire. You'll have to support yourself, you're going to have to grow up quickly. You're going to erect a lot of defenses which later you'll have to take down again. And some might not make it, and I know that's not an acceptable price to pay. But I always value the inner life above the outer life, and I always value the imaginative above the material. If you're free in your mind, you can be free.

And he or she on the street at 16, who should they turn to?
I had books. That was what saved me. Because when I read those books I didn't feel like I was a socially disadvantaged kid with huge problems left to fend for herself. I thought I was a hero. I thought I was Huck Finn, I thought I was Aladdin, Crusoe, Heathcliff. I was able to identify with the strength of the characters in those books. That's the imaginative life. If you can identify with something that's entirely a construct, and that's what art is, then it gives you enormous strength.

In a recent column you wrote, "What you eat is the most political thing you do every day." Can you expand on that?
We can feed the whole world and we can do it sustainably, or we can have this gross disparity where so many people in the West are eating twice as much as they need and they're eating shit and wondering why they're ruining their own bodies and ruining the planet and forcing people to work for nothing. And it's all there, on the food on the plate. People say, "I have no political power, I have no choice; I get to vote once every four or five years, that's it." Not so. Every time you open your mouth and shove in a forkful of food it is a political act because either you're supporting a sustainable system which is fair on the land and fair on labor or you're supporting a system which is about exploitation. And think how many times a day we're allowed to make that choice. And that's power. You can change the whole thing just by changing your eating habits.

Why do people feel that art is a luxury, and why are they in error?
One of the ways of denying or reducing something that makes you uncomfortable is to say it is a luxury. We tend to think of art as a peacetime activity or one for people who have enough money to spare, not for people who have got troubles in life or who are really troubled. This is rubbish. Art goes into the places which are famished, which are not nourished by our corporate culture, and it begins to nourish those places. The idea that life has an inside as well as an outside is so important now. We can't rely on the church to tell us that. Europeans are good on this. They can talk philosophically, they're interested in ideas. Even taxi drivers think of themselves as intellectual. They'll talk to you about anything, not just the news but about paintings and statues they've seen, they've all been to their galleries. Paris in particular thinks of itself as a highly intellectual city.

Do you agree?
Yes, I do. Because they're not afraid of culture there. They put a lot of money into it, a lot of effort. Philosophers write for newspapers on a regular basis. They don't marginalize arts and culture. Even if it's only giving lip service, it's better than in England or America where people aren't even paying lip service. Where they see it as part of the charity division. Or irrelevant. The Italians and the French don't think that culture is irrelevant to the important things in life. Ordinary people will go to the opera, the theater, coming in off the streets buying cheap tickets alive with curiosity. In Poland at my readings [in March 2005], we're talking seven, eight, 900 people hungry for ideas, hungry for culture, not much money to buy books. So you get three or four people coming in, saying "We're buying this between us and we're going to share it." Still wanting to spend their money like that, still thinking, Well, you know, we won't go out afterward and buy something to eat because we can't do both, but we're going to buy this book. And that's why I go to these cities, because I feel better there. People are thinking, talking, arguing.

Do you think you'll move to Paris?
Not full time. I'm trying to get an apartment and if I succeed, then I'll certainly spend half the year there.

You love New York though. Nobody could have written what you've written about this city without being in love.

Have you fallen out of love?
No, I haven't fallen out of love with New York. It's still a great city, a wonderful city, and the Americans are still a great people. It's as though a shadow has fallen over your land. A shadow of fear and intolerance and oppression. And I hope we see that shadow disappear. We're all together in this.

Stroh is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She lives with her family in the Virginia countryside.

keeping (
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (
The Passion (
The PowerBook (
The King of Capri (
Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (

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